Real and imaginary new Jews

One of the strangest illusions among Germany’s Achtundsechziger – about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – was the idea that they were the “new Jews”. In the late sixties, as members of the protest movement in West Germany came under increasing attack from their parents’ generation – the so-called “Auschwitz generation” – they began to imagine that they had somehow taken the place of, or were being treated like, the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Alain Finkielkraut has written eloquently about this in relation to the soixante-huitards – the French equivalent of the Achtundsechziger. He points out in his book The Imaginary Jew that their slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) – an expression of solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit – suggested that “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone” and that “every child of the post-war era could change places with the outsider and wear a yellow star”.)

What is remarkable about this is not just that the Achtundsechziger thought of themselves as the “new Jews” but that they used the term (like other problematic terms they used) in such a radically innocent way. As far as I can tell, they were entirely unaware of the history of the idea of the “new Jew” and the different meaning it had in the context of Zionism. Like other utopian movements, Zionism imagined that the new society it dreamt of creating would also bring forth a “new man”. The idea, in this case, was that by moving to Palestine and creating a state of their own in which they would control their own destiny, the Jews would reinvent themselves as a better, stronger people. In a sense, therefore, what the Zionists had in mind was the mirror image of what the Achtundsechziger did when they spoke of themselves as “new Jews”: the Zionists were real Jews who wanted to overcome their status as victims; the Achtundsechziger were non-Jews (or imaginary Jews, to use Finkielkraut’s term) who apparently wanted to become victims.

One particularly influential attempt to imagine what the “new Jew” would look like was the idea of Muskeljudentum, or “muscular Judaism”, which was proposed by Max Nordau, one of Theodor Herzl’s closest friends and advisors, at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. Nordau, a physician, believed that disapora Jews suffered from an “unhealthy” alienation from physical labour. In particular, he said, being deprived of light and space in the ghetto had made them physically weak. He thought that the Jews should therefore return to the land and in doing so would be spiritually redeemed but also physically transformed. “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men,” he proclaimed. (I am quoting here from Melvin Konner’s fascinating book, The Jewish Body, which was published by Schocken last year.) In a sense, the kibbutzim of Israel are the realization of his dream.

The concept of “muscular Judaism” seems to me to be problematic in several respects. For example, for all Nordau’s obvious sympathy with the diaspora Jew (he was, after all, one himself), his description of him as weak and pallid contains striking echoes of classical anti-Semitic tropes. The accusation that the Jews lack some mystic connection with the soil that others have also frequently comes up in anti-Semitic discourse (I seem to remember that Sartre writes about this in Réflexions sur la question juive). However, Nordau’s emphasis on the importance of soil – Boden in German also illustrates (to return to the subject of my last post) how much Zionism owes to German nationalism. It seems to me that this makes the use of the term “new Jew” by the Achtundsechziger even more remarkable.

Perhaps an even more striking illustration of the parallels between Zionism and German nationalism is the role that gymnastics played in both. Nordau believed that, until the dream of a Jewish state was fulfilled, diaspora Jews should use gymnastics to improve their physical and moral condition. “For no other people will gymnastics fulfil a more educational purpose than for Jews”, he said in his speech at the Zionist Congress. “It shall straighten us in body and in character.” Jews throughout Europe subsequently set up a network of gymnastics clubs, which were strikingly similar to the Turnvereine inspired by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn that were so central to early German nationalism. You might even say that Nordau was Israel’s Turnvater. The irony is that Jahn was an anti-Semite.

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2 thoughts on “Real and imaginary new Jews

  1. Pingback: Herzl’s German adventure « Hans Kundnani

  2. Pingback: Tribal qualities « Hans Kundnani

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